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Wild Records Keeps Rockabilly Fresh

Marlene Perez of the Rhythm Shakers
Marlene Perez of the Rhythm Shakers
Courtesy of Wild Records

Since 2001, Dublin-by-way-of-San Francisco transplant Reb Kennedy has released some of the highest energy rock and roll this side of Little Richard. Under the auspices of Wild Records, he's discovered and developed new, predominantly Latino talent.

The "Wild sound," as it's known abroad, isn't rote worship of a bygone age. On the contrary, it's fresh and vital rock and roll informed in equal parts by rockabilly's golden age, Stax Records soul, '60s girl pop, Chicago blues and first wave punk rock. This unholy brew of rock's past creates an exciting sound that has hundreds of Southern California young people and eternal teenagers alike turning up at clubs, parties and swap meets.

Documentary filmmaker Elise Salomon has recently completed Los Wild Ones, which chronicles the label and debuts Friday at the Santa Monica Pier. We spoke with Kennedy, who is 52 and lives in Altadena, about the Wild sound.

Why did you start Wild Records?

Well, you look at a place like Sweden. It has one of the biggest rockabilly scenes in the world; But they've got a lot of what I call "rockabilly Nazis." They want everything to sound like the '50s. I just wanted to record good rock and roll music. One of the most important things to me is to keep it sounding fresh. We use musical instruments and influences from everywhere, but I do have one rule: Everything has to be recorded on tape.

What does tape give you that digital doesn't?

Soul. We're really a soul label. I always want the right take. There can be a lot of fuck ups on the right take. The band can be out of tune or off time. I want to get the band past their fear and start to play with heart and soul. I make Gizzelle cry every time we record. That's what makes for a great take.

How did it all get started?

I was running a club in Brisbane, CA called the 23 Club. It's this old honky tonk that still has a piano Jerry Lee Lewis played on. These older guys just kept getting older and I wanted to do something fresh. I wanted newer bands to open for established acts. That's when I came across Lil Luis y Los Wild Teens.

Why did you start with them?

Well, first of all, they were the worst musicians I had ever seen. They had a lot of horns, which I'm not a fan of unless it's soul. Still, the energy from the band was unbelievable. They'd get drunk on stage and go crazy. They'd all stop playing at once. It wasn't a planned rest or anything, it was just a pause in the sound. I loved the focus on the energy. That's what blew me away.

What's the attraction for Latinos to this type of music?

There are a lot of social similarities between my background and theirs. I grew up with music on constantly. Roy Orbison. Johnny Cash. My dad brought me to a pub when I was 13 and everyone was drinking and signing. The Irish Catholic thing is tied to music and rock and roll is basic, uncomplicated music.

See also: Latino Rockabilly In Los Angeles FTW

Rockabilly appeals to a working class person for the same reason punk does. If you're a working class person with aspirations, this is something you can do. Our listeners know that Omar Romero gets out of bed every day and cuts hair for eight hours. They know that they're always going to need a job. But if they start playing in a band, they can make a statement with music and they can see the world.

Reb Kennedy
Reb Kennedy

What about the past appeals to young people today?

Today doesn't offer them anything. Most people are superficially entertained. It's a rare few that decides to hunt for music. The "look" or whatever is secondary.

A lot of our American fan base don't know anything about the '50s, though. They find us because it's something that's going on today. Our audience is predominantly 13 to 25. They're not looking to the past. They stumble on an Omar Romero record and it starts there. It doesn't work the other way around. We don't get Sun Records fans coming to us.

Young, teenage kids know nothing about the music of the past. They come because there's a band playing the swap meet. You can see three bands for two bucks. Some of them might like the Bon Jovi tribute band, but a lot of them like us. We're the first stop for these kids.

You run the label full time. What's that like?

I used to be in early childhood education and it prepared me for this. I work with 100 people who basically act like children. A week doesn't go by where I don't pay someone's rent or bail someone out of jail. We also have a lot of young artists and I try to develop their talent and mentor them.

Los Wild Ones screens this Friday evening at the Santa Monica Pier as part of the Front Porch Cinema Film Independent series. This event is free.

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